My good friend and OJC reader Peter from San Diego comments at this old article about Calvinism.
The Calvinist "Good News" is only good news for the divine lottery winners. Unconditional election is contrary to the entire message of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. But if the Calvinists are correct, then no one should worry about anything; everything, including my post, has been preordained, just as 911 and ISIS were ordained by the Calvinist God.
I will often post noteworthy comments to old articles in new blog entries, but in light of my recent de-emphasizing of Anglicanism's Protestant legacy, I welcome the opportunity to reiterate what I believe about the Western Catholic view of election and divine predestination. So, Peter, thanks for the comment.
I'm still a biblical predestinarian, and so I reject the notion that unconditional election is "contrary to the entire message of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation." For one of the most scholarly exegetical treatments of predestination and unconditional election, my readers should purchase, read, mark and imwardly digest John Piper's magisterial The Justification of God: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Romans 9:1-23. Piper's detailed exegetical work delves deeply into the Old Testament basis of Paul's teaching regarding unconditional election. However, as the title indicates, the argument is confined to the explication of only one key biblical text that deals with these issues. As anyone familiar with the "Calvinist-Arminian" debate knows, there are many texts both in the Old Testament and the New which bear upon God's sovereignty both in the redemption of man and in the ordering of the events of world history.
Peter is clearly troubled about the "Calvinist" interpretation of those texts, as evidenced by the conclusion he draws about 9/11, ISIS and the post that came about as a result of his own volition. There are a number of things to be said in response.
First, as I've explained in several previous online discussions in which Peter was involved, the kind of predestinarianism we observe in the Bible is a "compatibilist" one, meaning one that sees both human volition and divine predestinarianism as "compatible." I typically trot out the account of the shipwreck at Malta as a clear example of what I mean. In Acts 27: 22 ff., Paul tells the terrified sailors and passengers:
But now I urge you to keep up your courage, because not one of you will be lost; only the ship will be destroyed. 23 Last night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve stood beside me 24 and said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul. You must stand trial before Caesar; and God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you.’ 25 So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told me. 26 Nevertheless, we must run aground on some island.”
In other words, God had divinely ordained that all would survive the storm, though the ship itself would be destroyed. However, a few verses later we observe some men wishing to save themselves via the lifeboat, which prompts Paul to warn the centurion, "Unless these men stay with the ship, you cannot be saved.” This is a clear nod to the reality of human volition. Volition, but not blind contingency, for the salvation of the crew and passengers "will happen just as he told me."
Philosophers have attempted to work out various solutions to the nagging problems of compatibilist determinism. Norman Swartz is one such philosopher who employs modal logic. And I am sure his work has been subjected to the scrutiny of his peers. I am no philosopher, however. My theological education focused more on hermeneutics, exegesis and theology, and those tools point me in the direction of compatibilist determinism aka "biblical predestination".
The second observation I have about Peter's argument is that it attempts to defeat biblical predestinarianism through applying a reductio ad absurdum that neither accounts for all the ontological intricacies through which divine predestination and human volition are in fact reconciled, nor for Anglican theologian J.B. Mozley's point about all this, on which I've written before. Catholic Augustine scholar Gerald Bonner summarized Mozley's point (bolded emphases mine):
In a study of Augustinian predestination first published in 1855, J.B Mozley, brother-in-law of John Henry Newman and later Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and Regius Professor of Divinity, theologically orthodox but fair-minded and aware of the limitations of the human intellect, noted the ideas of Divine Power and human free will, while sufficiently clear for the purposes of practical religion, are, in this world, truths from which we cannot derive definite and absolute systems. "All that we build upon either of them must partake of the imperfect nature of the premise which supports it, and be held under a reserve of consistency with a counter conclusion from the opposite truth." The Pelagian and Augustinian systems both arise upon partial and exclusive bases.
Mozley held that while both systems were at fault, the Augustinian offends in carrying certain religious ideas to an excess, whereas the Pelagian offends against the first principles of religion: "Pelagianism . . . offends against the first principles of piety, and opposes the great religious instincts and ideas of mankind. It. . . tampers with the sense of sin. . . . (Augustine's) doctrine of the Fall, the doctrine of Grace, and the doctrine of the Atonement are grounded in the instincts of mankind." (Freedom and Necessity: St. Augustine's Teaching on Divine Power and Human Freedom)
In other words, if we're going to err, we need to err in the direction of Augustine's predestinarianism. Indeed, a number of Anglican theologians have decried the Pelagian tendency of the English people, and have noted how Pelagianism is inherently destructive of the faith, which leads to my third observation about Peter's argument:
If we push his logic, we arguably end up not only in Pelagianism, but in Open Theism. I'm pretty sure that Peter does not believe in the "Pelagian God" or the "Open Theism God", but taken at face value his comments imply that God is not sovereign either in the affaris of human history or in human salvation. Forget about the decretal theology of Augustine, his school in the Catholic West, and the Protestant Reformation, and think about things like 9/11 and ISIS only in light of the orthodox (and Orthodox) belief that God in his perfect omniscience has perfect knowledge of the future. If, before the foundation of the world, God perfectly foreknew that 9/11 and ISIS would happen and then he created a world that would become the historical matrix of those things, then 9/11 and ISIS WOULD happen, because God cannot be wrong about what he foreknows. That is to say, they would occur on the world scene with just as much necessity as they would have if they were actively predestined. But then we look at Holy Scripture and see that divine foreknowledge is simply the flip side, theologically, of predestination.
Lastly, in response to Peter's complaint that the "good news" according to the Pauline-Augustinian theology is only that to those who are "divine lottery winners", it needs to be stressed that Pauline-Augustinian predestinarians don't believe in a "divine lottery", but a divine decree. I get what Peter is saying here, but chance really has noting to do with it, either on God's end or man's. We have to answer the question of why one person believes and why another doesn't. I believe the Bible answers that question, and that St. Augustine got it right on that answer, which accounts for the fact that the Catholic West, to one degree or another, is predestinarian, anti-Pelagian, anti-Semipelagian, and anti-Open Theism. The Catholic East is officially opposed to at least three of those things, but I have seen Orthodox thinkers drift dangerously close to, if not into, Open Theism. That is the danger of Peter's logic, and many an Anglican anti-Calvinist theologian has recognized that danger. Some Arminian Evangelicals have already swallowed Open Theism, hook, line and sinker. Some Orthodox theologians are tempted. Western Catholics need to stay grounded in the theology that led to the condemnations of Pelagianism and Semipelagianism, even if they can't bring themselves to believe in the doctrine of unconditional election, as Mozley himself could not. Mozley nevertheless stood that Augustine's theology bore a relation to the Catholic Faith that Pelagianism never could.